After 103 years in absolute darkness, 12,500 feet beneath the ocean surface, a light is finally illuminating the ghostly bow of the lost ocean liner. Titanic’s tragic maiden voyage still captures the imagination of the world 100 years later. Many of the facts have become the foundations of a legend; that the ship hit the iceberg at around 11:40 on April 14th, of the insufficient number of lifeboats, and the story of the band who would continue to play, supposedly up until the last moment. At approximately 2:20am the ship perished, taking over 1,500 people into the water.
In the immediate aftermath the world was left shell shocked and wanted answers. The media went into a wild frenzy. Some survivors were applauded as heroes, but many were vilified. J. Bruce Ismay was condemned by the public for not going down with his ship or giving his place in a lifeboat to a woman or child. The huge loss of life left a world seeking someone to blame, and it seemed that the media was not short of culprits. Ranging from Captain Smith himself, to the lookout crew and the survivors in the lifeboats who refused to go back and attempt to rescue those who had been forced to surrender to the freezing water.
The grief stricken public was outraged. Both the U.S and British enquires into the disaster found that the lifeboats were not properly filled, ice warnings had not been adhered to and that the nearby SS Californian could have rescued many, if not all of the passengers. Many felt that the huge loss of life could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the greed driven and arrogant attitudes of the White Star Line and the British Board of Trade whose regulations meant the Titanic did not need to have enough lifeboats for all passengers. The protocol at the time expected that in the event of an accident ships only needed enough lifeboats to ferry passengers from the sinking vessel to a nearby rescue ship. Of course, in Titanic’s case, the only ship to answer the call, RMS Carpathia, did not reach it in time.
The obsession did not end with the enquiries. Post-cards were sold, commemorating the tragedy, depicting the sinking vessel alongside the poignant notes of the bands last song. Artwork, a musical and songs were inspired by the events of 14/15th April 1912. The tragedy has been depicted in film a number of times, most recently an ITV series and James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster ‘Titanic’. These recent portrayals are not a recent phenomenon, the earliest film was released a mere 29 days after the disaster involving 22 year old Dorothy Gibson, a survivor of the sinking. Whilst some condemned the film for being insensitive, it was still a success.
Within days the Titanic had become a legend. She represented a moral lesson, how nature will always triumph over greed and of the limitations of mankind. Its mythology has continued to capture the imaginations and hearts of so many generations. But that’s not why the tragedy of Titanic is so powerful. It is the human stories and the scale of human suffering, an episode in our history which shows the best, and the worst of our nature. People are fascinated with a tragedy which could have been averted. Titanic artist Ken Marschall stated that he felt that by painting the ship he could keep their memory alive. For him, and many others, it’s important to honour the memory of those who were aboard the ship. However, for others it’s the eerie broken body of the wreck, which fascinates them whilst they continue to look for answers, how and why did the Titanic sink? Who, if anyone, was to blame? What should we do with the site of the wreck itself?
Dr Ballard fervently believes the site should be left intact as a memorial to those who lost their lives, said he feared that the wreck would become a haven for treasure hunters. His fears were not unfounded; Ballard has argued that many parts of the ship have been damaged and stolen; the Crow’s Nest is amongst the missing.
The centennial auction estimated the total worth of 5000 salvaged memorabilia items were worth around £117 million. Items included personal artefacts such as glasses and hats to parts of the ship itself. In 2008 a lifejacket believed to have been pulled from a frozen body in the ocean sold for £34,000. It had blood stains on it. Many salving operations were deemed by many of the remaining survivors as disgusting, the divers were called ‘thieves’ and ‘grave-robbers.’ But is it right to take things from the site or should it be treated as a mass grave? Whilst there is something unsettling and grotesque about selling such items to the highest bidder the sad fact is that without these salvage missions they will be lost forever. The ocean will not preserve them. Even the Titanic will one day be nothing more than a rust stain on the bottom of the Atlantic. Isn’t it better that they are conserved for future generations?
But amidst the on-going debates and controversies about salvaging the Titanic we should not allow ourselves to get lost in the irony of the tale which was heralded as a moral against greed and arrogance and has now become a billion dollar industry. Nor should we immerse ourselves merely in statistics and numbers. We should remember the horrors, not only of the night when the world seemed to stand still, but also of the days that followed. We should remember that on the 20th April 1912 Mrs Johanna Stunke aboard the Bremen reported seeing a hundred bodies floating on the icy surface of the water, one woman clasping her baby and another clasping her scruffy dog. It should never be forgotten that when seven year old Eva Hart said what would be her last goodbye to her father as she clambered into the lifeboat she was told she would be back on the ship to greet him in time for breakfast.
- The RMS Titanic, built in Belfast and registered at Liverpool, was an Olympic class ocean liner and the biggest floating vessel on water at the time of her maiden voyage in 1912.
- She collided with an iceberg at 11:40pm on 14th April and took 2hrs & 4o minutes to sink, taking 1,502 souls with her out of 2,224 passengers and crew.
- Blame for the lack of sufficient lifeboats and the accident itself has been laid at White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay, though others claim that he was made a scapegoat for larger failings in British shipping regulations.
- The Titanic’s sinking has been immortalised since in numerous stories, songs, films and television programmes, forming almost an industry in itself today